Iran is an extremely challenging place for journalists to operate. Formal invitations, convoluted bureaucracy, and government-approved “minders” tracking your every movement make it one of the most difficult places to report from in the world. Even with legal permits we got detained and/or arrested almost daily.
VICE had been trying to get into this isolated country for seven years, and every time we got shut down with zero explanation. Last year, after hearing that Iran had a heroin epidemic on its hands—which every single Iranian we interviewed for the piece insisted was a direct consequence of America’s decade-plus occupation of Afghanistan—we gave it another shot.
This time our pitch to the Ministry of Culture was that we wanted to do a story about the widespread damage the opium and heroin trade has had on Iranian society. Finally, they agreed and invited us to come over. Our entire international crew was allowed inside, with the exception of our American cameramen, whom we had to replace with Iranian and Mexican nationals.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of the dope flowing out of Afghanistan passes through Iran before ending up in Europe, where it is sold at a street level. Along the way, a lot of it ends up in the arms of what the Iranian government estimates to be 2 million drug users. (The actual number is widely believed to be much higher.)
In the years leading up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had enforced a ban on opium-poppy cultivation, resulting in historically low levels of production. After the Taliban were toppled, the Afghan warlords who regained control of the country (many of whom were appointed by the Americans) resumed the stupidly lucrative farming of opium and poppy once again.
US policy regarding the eradication of poppy fields was murky and inconsistent. As the poppy fields grew, the Taliban quietly wrestled power back in large swaths of the country, but with a new perspective on drug production and smuggling. They began to view drugs—especially heroin—as a viable source of income to help finance their fight against coalition troops. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Taliban made $155 million from the drug trade in 2009.
Today, the amount of opium cultivated in Afghanistan has reached staggering heights. Revenues generated from the illicit trafficking of Afghan opiates total approximately $61 billion—nearly 90 percent of the $68 billion global trafficking trade. Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, opium cultivation skyrocketed by more than 2,500 percent, despite the billions of American dollars spent to combat the trade.
To say this exponentially ballooning business is causing major problems for Afghanistan’s western neighbor is an understatement. General Ali Moayedi, the head of Iran’s equivalent of the DEA, told Iranian newspapers that every hour 30 drug smugglers and addicts are identified and arrested in Iran, and that 2,835 pounds of drugs are confiscated each day, according to an AP report from January 2013. While those numbers are largely unverifiable, it’s safe to say Iran’s drug enforcement officials aren’t sitting around with their thumbs up their asses. The Iranian government states that they allocate approximately $1 billion a year and about 12,000 soldiers to their war against drugs. And over the past few decades, approximately 3,700 of these soldiers have died in the line of duty.
Outside of the brute-force tactics used in preventing smugglers from crossing the border, we also learned that Iran has internally employed some progressive policies regarding heroin use. But smugglers and dealers face severe punishments—a sensible rule for a country with millions of officially registered addicts. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, an estimated 70 percent of more than 2,000 executions that took place in Iran since 2011 were for drug-related offenses.
Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served in Afghanistan as special adviser to Admiral Mike Mullen, told us that regardless of America’s original intentions in Afghanistan, we instead left behind a system of “institutionalized lawlessness” and “a really remarkable and well-equipped hub for transnational organized crime.”
Afghanistan has become a narco-state, and that’s America’s legacy in the region.